Justice's Son

The Interconnected World of NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous

by Paul Hond Published Spring 2013
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Rally for voting rights, February 27, 2013. / Photograph by Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

“Tonight,” Jealous says, “I want to invite you to think about the interconnected nature of some of our nation’s toughest problems.”

Jealous has thought about this web his whole life, though it wasn’t until college, while he was doing community service and eyeing Wall Street, that a four-year-old girl in a crack-haunted Harlem tenement set him on an activist path. (The girl told Jealous she’d seen a rape in the backyard — her description proved she understood the word — and years later, Jealous, in private conversations, recounts the moment with a hand over his eyes.) That was before his suspension from Columbia; before he was managing editor of the Jackson Advocate, Mississippi’s oldest black newspaper; before the Rhodes Scholarship (he studied criminology at Oxford); before he headed the grant-making, human-rights-focused Rosenberg Foundation; and long before 2008, when he became, at thirty-five, the youngest-ever president of America’s oldest civil-rights organization.

“Tonight, I want to invite you to think about the interconnected nature of some of our nation’s toughest problems.”

“If we’re going to use our education to advance equity, it starts with having a critical mind, and you have to ask the question: why is it that in your lifetime public-university tuition in states across this country has gone up faster than at any point in history?”

Jealous reels off some numbers: in the past five years, tuition in Virginia went up by 29 percent, California by 72 percent, Arizona by 78 percent.

“When I was a child in California in the 1970s,” he says, “we spent 3 percent of our state budget on prisons and 11 percent on public universities, and our schools were cheap and generally considered to be the best in the world. Fast-forward to a couple of years ago. I was with Governor Schwarzenegger and asked him for those same stats, and he said, ‘Ben, today we spend 11 percent on prisons and 7.5 percent on public universities.’ And that’s why tuition has to go up. You can’t spend 11 percent on education if you’re spending 11 percent on prisons.” Jealous scans the crowd. “Fear,” he says, “is sapping our nation of the talent of your generation. Because when tuition goes up 72 percent, somebody isn’t going to school next year. Because when students are defaulting on their student loans, they can’t go to grad school. Because when the state says, ‘Yes, we know it’s seven times more effective to use drug treatment than incarceration for nonviolent drug addicts, but we’re just going to keep locking them up,’ it turns many of them from nonviolent addicts into hard criminals.” Jealous has the room. “Choices are being made, and it’s not just about them. It ultimately impacts all of us.”

The speaker then makes an abrupt pivot.

“How many of you,” he says, “remember the DC Sniper?”

The Marriage

In 1986, the NAACP moved its headquarters from Lower Manhattan to the fringe of northwest Baltimore, into a brick complex that was originally a Roman Catholic convent. Now called the Benjamin Hooks Building, after the former NAACP executive director, the structure has been absorbed into a winding office park. The Hooks Building, at the top of the hill, overlooks a stretch of urban woods and maintains a certain monastic seclusion.

Inside, past a corridor lined with historical photographs of NAACP conventions, is a stained-glass-windowed chapel, now the Roy Wilkins Auditorium. It was there, last May, that Jealous made one of the most talked-about statements of his presidency.

The pronouncement was all the more poignant for occurring in Baltimore, city of Frederick Douglass and Thurgood Marshall, once a slave city (the 1840 census counted 5,000 slaves) that was also home to thousands of free African-Americans and fugitive slaves, later a segregated city that Jealous’s parents helped desegregate, and where it was illegal for them to get married until 1967. When they did marry, Jealous’s white father was disowned by his New England family. Jealous grew up close to his mother’s family, the Todds of Baltimore. Though Jealous was raised in Northern California, educated in New York and Oxford, and lives in a Maryland suburb of Washington with his wife, law professor Lia Epperson, and their two small children, he often invokes his Baltimore roots, as he did that day in the Wilkins Auditorium, when he declared the NAACP’s support for same-sex marriage.

“We do this work because of our faith, not in spite of it,” Jealous told a reporter who asked about religious opposition to gay marriage within the NAACP. “With that said, our calling as an organization is to defend the US Constitution. We are here to speak to matters of civil law and matters of civil rights.” He stated that clergy considered any difference of opinion “a difference, not a division,” and then, his voice tightening, he said, “To a one, they understand that there are —” He broke off, bowed his head. “You have to excuse me.” He paused. “I’m a bit moved. My parents’ own marriage was against the law at the time.”

The couple had to get married in Washington before returning to Baltimore, Jealous said. The procession of cars, headlights ablaze, was obliged to travel the fifty miles between the two cities. People who saw it mistook it for a funeral.

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